When Amy tripped on her way out of the office parking garage and ended up sprawled on the sidewalk, a noise came from her mouth that was a cross between a gasp, a screech and a squawking chicken. In addition to skinning her knees, she broke the heel on one of her new, cute winter boots. Luckily, she had some back-up tennis shoes in her desk due to some client freebies and no one would have noticed her cute boots anyway, because she would be stuck at her desk all day with the mountain of work she needed to complete.
Despite this being only a few weeks into January, Amy wasn’t feeling very hopeful this year would be any different from the last. Everyone was so excited about “the new year, the new you,” and what resolutions they should all tackle: healthy eating, exercise, new hobbies, work/life balance, etc. Amy’s Facebook feed was full of articles informing her of “10 Ways to Deal with Stress” or “5 Stress Relievers You Need Today.” Someone in the office (Probably HR or Molly, the girl who was nauseatingly healthy) printed out one of these headline-grabbing quick-fixers and posted it in the break room. It was tacked on the bulletin board right next to “Why Sitting All Day Can Kill You” and “The 138 Health Benefits of Yoga.” Amy usually ignored these postings on her way to brew coffee or grab an extra energy drink from the never-ending supply in the company-provided refrigerator.
However, a few weeks ago, she was stuck waiting in line for her daily caffeine fix because Richard was filling his mammoth mug. Seriously, it took, like, half the pot to fill or at a minimum three K-cups. He should really be polite and let the others go first. She didn’t want to get stuck with him while she waited, because all he talked about was numerology, spin class and his paleo diet, so Amy hovered in front of the bulletin board, pretending to be absorbed in the articles posted there. And, well, she ended up actually reading the one about stress.
The number one item on the list of things to reduce stress was to walk. According to this article, walking could improve your mood and self-esteem through the production of feel-good endorphins and actually lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. She snorted. Everyone walked. She walked all day, right? She walked to the bathroom, to the break room, to meetings. And she still felt stressed. Her best friend Lori swore yoga was a great stress-reliever but the one time Amy tried it she almost passed out from the heated room and ended up just trying not to toot the whole time or fall flat on her face from her lack of flexibility.
“Annie, I need this statement of work edited right away. Do you mind?” said Stan, one of the C-level suits who never talked to her except when he needed something. He was notorious around the office for getting everyone’s names slightly wrong.
“Sure, Stan,” she replied. “When do you need it back?”
“Right away! I have a meeting at ten with Gazongas Grill, and I think they’re ready to sign!” He swooped over to the coffee pot as Richard walked away. It would never occur to him that there was a line.
“Okay. I’m going to get some coffee first and then I can get right on it,” she said to his back.
“Great! Thanks, Annie,” he said, flashing his meaningless smile.
She sighed. It was nine o’clock.
* * *
Amy was the director of content at Ripple Media. What did that mean exactly? Good question, since her job description seemed to evolve every six months or so. She hired freelance writers to create blog posts, press releases, video scripts and social content for their clients, which were big companies who needed help with social media and digital advertising. They had an editor who proofread all content, but he ended up sleeping with half the women in the office and was fired after a huge, very public break-up with a woman from the graphics department last month at the Christmas party. It’s safe to say beer pong, jello shots, the company kegerator and hard liquor bar definitely exacerbated the drama. So, now Amy was filling in as editor because no one seemed motivated to hire a new one. She happened to be pretty decent at it (thanks, Mom and Dad, for all those years of grammar-Nazi private school), but now she was doing the jobs of at least two people.
After getting stuck in conversation with Erin in the kitchen about the merits of putting her dog in daycare, then pulled into another conversation as she passed Sam’s desk who wanted to mention how his cousin’s girlfriend was taking writing in college and wondered if she had any job openings for writers, Amy made it back to her desk and opened her email. She already had three blog requests, five editing requests and an impromptu “processes” meeting scheduled for 9:30. Next, she opened the usual ten or so browser windows she needed to function each day.
Krissy pinged her in g-chat. “Amy, can you add Courtney to the Psalm Shoes account in WorkTogether? I don’t have admin access, and she’s been moved onto the account as community manager. I need to assign her some tasks.”
“No problem. I’ll do it now,” said Amy.
Psalm Shoes was a fledgling company selling tennis shoes with – you guessed it – psalms on them. Some pseudo-celebrity was wearing them in an Instagram photo which went viral, mainly due to the fact that the celebrity was only wearing the shoes, which subsequently caused Instagram to ban it, insuring everyone had to see it. Now not only were these shoes a fad, but photos of people wearing them nude or mostly nude were flooding the internet. Psalm Shoes’ one-man marketing team knew enough to know he didn’t know enough and realized that in order to ride the wave, he needed to hire Ripple Media immediately to manage their social media as the brand grew exponentially. They all received shoes as extra compensation after handling a particularly touchy situation involving an animal rights group regarding the material the shoes were made out of. Amy’s shoes were lime green and said, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” These were the shoes she put on as soon as she got to her desk that morning after breaking her new boots. They were actually pretty comfortable.
After adding Courtney to the Psalm Shoes account in WorkTogether, she pulled up the statement of work, which was for a breastraunt called Gazongas Grill, a local spot for great burgers served by big-breasted servers. They offered an ostentatious Sunday brunch for the LGBTQ community, complete with over-the-top drag queens. It’d probably be a fun account to work on if the deal went through.
She knocked out the document in about twenty minutes and emailed it back to Stan, just in time for the 9:30 meeting to discuss a new process for documenting office processing. Meanwhile, five more editing task notifications hit her inbox.
* * *
After a working lunch of a bag of chips and a Coke, which she took at her desk while browsing Facebook, throwing a few things in her Amazon cart and gossiping over g-chat with Lori, who worked at another marketing agency, she realized she was running late to a video conference. Luckily, the rest of the meeting attendees were having technical difficulties in projecting onto the large screen, so her late arrival wasn’t a big deal. The meeting ended up being unnecessarily long and filled with the usual marketing speak, from “high-level strategy” to “organic content” and “potential reach.” In fact, if someone used the term “piggyback” or “wheelhouse” one more time, Amy was going straight to the kegerator to start drinking.
After that meeting she headed back to her desk, but not before swinging by the break room to grab another coffee (she didn’t have to break out the alcohol … yet). To delay going back to her desk, Amy found herself reading over the bulletin board again. The article about stress again caught her eye, and she read further this time. Apparently, walking can help relieve stress, especially walking outside in nature, and most people should aim for 10,000 steps a day. Amy’s mom gave her a Fitbit for Christmas, and she’d worn it for about a week before she lost interest. But she’d only logged about 4,000 steps a day. 10,000?!
Amy g-chatted Lori when she got back to her desk.
Amy: Asshat got my name wrong four times today and right once. I think that’s a new record.
Lori: Maybe you should start calling him by the wrong name.
Amy: Ha! I don’t think that would help anything.
Lori: Maybe add a request to the suggestion box, recommending everyone wear nametags?
Amy: Whatever, he’s the least of my worries. I’m knee-deep in editing now, and there’s no talk of hiring another editor. Meanwhile, I’m doing that in addition to my other job duties, so really, I’m doing enough work for two employees.
Lori: Demand a raise!
Amy: I wish! The timing isn’t right yet. BTW, I don’t think I’m going to make that movie tonight. I have to work late to finish everything.
Lori: SMH That’s the third time you’ve canceled this month.
Amy: I know, I’m so sorry. I’m the worst friend ever.
Lori: It’s not too late to ditch Ripple and go corporate. We need a content manager here . . .
Amy: I know, I just feel like I should stay loyal. Misguided, perhaps.
Lori: Just take care of yourself. Get out from behind the screen and go for a walk or something.
* * *
Amy almost always took lunch at her desk and worked late every night. She didn’t take breaks to do something as unproductive as walking. But that 10,000 steps intrigued her. Would it really make a difference in her stress? So, she decided to take Lori’s advice, and the advice of the bulletin board article, and went for a walk. She hit the bricks. Literally. The nearby park trail and neighborhood sidewalks were made up of bricks in faded grays, pink, orange and yellows that made a lovely palette. The dead leaves scattered throughout made satisfyingly crunchy noises as she walked over them, the acorns breaking with sharp cracks. In spite of the bucolic setting, a large waste management truck rumbled by and she could hear a steady hum of the highway traffic in the distance, muted by buildings and trees.
Amy rounded a corner and slowed down as she strolled by a row of several-story tall townhomes with quaint, low-walled gardens in front. An orange tabby cat watched her from the front stoop of one and Amy smiled at it as she passed, calling out, “Hey, kitty, kitty,” in a singsong voice. See, she could do this. She already felt more relaxed. She unclenched her jaw and blinked rapidly, moisturizing her dry eyes. She rolled her shoulders, feeling the tension that tightened her muscles loosen just a tad.
And that’s when it happened. The tip of Amy’s lime-green Psalm Shoe bumped into something solid, and she tripped, stumbled, but caught her balance. She looked around to see if anyone noticed her clumsiness. Not a soul in sight. Then she looked down.
A few of the bricks in the sidewalk popped up slightly, almost as if something was trying to burst out from underneath. Even as she had the thought, she dismissed it. Because of course, there wasn’t anything trying to come out of the sidewalk. It was just poor bricklaying or rogue tree roots. There were trees lining the sidewalk, large oak trees whose roots she was sure were battling with the bricks.
Amy kept walking, determined to exercise out her demons, so to speak. She visualized passing the stress through her body and working its way down her legs and out through her feet and Psalm shoes onto the bricks as she walked brisker and brisker. Her legs tingled.
She decided to stick to a certain grid of streets and keep to the same route, kind of walking laps. The second time around, she remembered to look down as she rounded the corner and stepped over the protruding bricks. Was the crack bigger? Were the bricks pushed up more? Surely it was her imagination. The tingling in her legs subsided a bit and seemed to move lower, into her ankles and feet. Were her toes vibrating?
As she reached the spot her seventh time around, out of breath and ready to quit, she stopped a few feet before she reached the spot. The bricks were trembling and erupting. A dirty gray chicken-like creature with booger-colored eyes and a puke-green beak clawed its way out of the hole, the bricks crumbling and breaking around it. It was a grotesque birthing. At last free of the bricks it preened, ruffling its gray feathers, and then stared at Amy with its putrid gaze, shaking its stick legs wearing lime-green Psalm Shoes.
Amy gasped and took a step backwards. It mimicked her, taking a jerky step backwards almost simultaneously. What the hell. She blinked a few times, and it did the same.
“This can’t be real,” Amy spoke out loud. She didn’t feel threatened but did feel slightly sick to her stomach. “What are you?”
It squawked, an awful screech combined with a belch.
“Go away!” Amy yelled, waving her arms and taking an almost involuntary step toward it. It spooked and ran in the opposite direction, lime-green shoes fading around the corner. Within seconds she found herself alone on the sidewalk, staring into a dark hole in the bricks with a single dirty feather lying in the crumble. She crouched down and picked it up with her thumb and forefinger, half-expecting it to dissipate into her imagination. But it was solid. Uncomfortably solid.
She slowly walked back to the office, checking over her shoulder often, eyeing the bricks suspiciously, through the revolving door, up the elevator, past the receptionist and straight to her desk. She sat down and took a deep breath, staring at her computer screen without seeing anything. Had she finally cracked? Was she hallucinating? She looked down at the feather in her hand. That was real.
Her computer dinged, and about 20 new emails showed up in her already overflowing inbox. Seeing the number of unread emails rise and several interoffice g-chat messages awaiting her, she felt that tightening in her shoulders, the anxiety returning to her posture. Either she was so stressed that she hallucinated a chicken or, even weirder, somehow she manifested her stress into a bizarre, nightmarish creature that might this very moment be running around the neighborhood. Should she call animal control? Regardless of whether this was a hallucination or real, something needed to change, clearly.
Feeling like she was in someone else’s body, that this whole event was surreal, Amy stood up and walked to the HR director’s office. She said she was going home for the day, then after a second realized that’s not what she wanted. “I quit. I’ll do my two weeks, but then I’m out.”
Feeling lighter, feeling free, Amy sent a quick text to Lori. “Let’s do that movie. See you at 7.”
She had enough in her savings to take six months off. She could do whatever she wanted. Maybe she should actually write that great American novel or some children’s stories centered around a stress chicken. Or maybe check out the job Lori mentioned.
Amy grabbed an extra pair of Psalm Shoes from the bin on her way out and left the building. As she exited the revolving door, she glanced at the shoes. They were neon yellow and said, “Then the Lord said to us, ‘Get moving.’” She sat on the curb, pulled them on and did just that.
Rhea Thomas lives in Austin, Texas where she works as a program manager in the digital media world. She spends her free time kayaking and swimming in rivers, searching for mysteries and writing short stories that explore magical realism in the mundane office environment.